‘United States vs. Reality Winner’: Film Review | SXSW 2021

Whistleblower Reality Winner, tried under the Espionage Act for leaking documents to a media website, gets a documentary showcase that looks beyond her funny name.

That the documentary United States vs. Reality Winner achieves its primary goals makes it a fairly successful film.

That it achieves those goals while relying tediously on almost all of the genre’s most overused formal devices, offering shockingly little variation from countless other docs you’ve seen on similar subjects, makes it a so-so film.

The Bottom Line

Gripping story, by-the-numbers film.

If news stories relating to Russian interference in the 2016 election have formed a giant blur for you, you may not even remember that in 2017, an employee with the military contractor Pluribus International Corporation was arrested for leaking an NSA intelligence report to The Intercept. She was charged under the Espionage Act of 1917, one of only eight whistleblowers ever charged under that act. Her case, which included a highly suspect confession given under questionable circumstances to a team of armed FBI agents, attracted some media attention — but a lot of that attention was late-night comedy snark about the employee’s name, Reality Winner.

I’m here to admit with embarrassment that I knew Reality Winner more as an occasional punchline than a political prisoner.

So if the main objective of Sonia Kennebeck’s documentary is helping reclaim Reality Winner’s name and her identity as a person worthy of, at the very least, respectful debate, it works.

Driven by interviews with Winner’s dogged and dedicated mother Billie, her loving stepfather Gary and her candid and admiring sister Brittany, the documentary crafts a portrait that addresses her love of languages, her enlistment in the Air Force and how her patriotism led her to leak a single report to the press. Prosecutors and corners of the media turned her into an American-hating traitor, so this doc uses Reality’s diary, text messages and phone conversations to put many of the quotes used for sensationalistic effect into the correct context of a young woman with a sarcastic sense of humor and reasonable concerns about information she felt the American people had a right to know.

The doc’s other primary objective is to make a case for all the ways the justice system — and possibly several journalists — failed, railroading Reality Winner as part of an ongoing campaign against “leakers,” a nebulous subclass that would rank somewhere in the Top 50 on Donald Trump and Jeff Sessions’ list of nemeses. And yes, the documentary acknowledges that the so-called insider threat program — use of surveillance and government oversight (overreach) to detect and prevent disclosure of sensitive information, and punish it — was started under Obama. Don’t worry.

The case is made pretty simply and clearly that what Reality Winner did was only tenuously related to the scope of the Espionage Act and that the Espionage Act is, at best, a flawed cudgel in circumstances like this, since it relies essentially on a Yes/No finding with no room for — again — context. The documentary’s a bit fuzzy on exactly what the information/document she leaked really was, but it’s publicly available now.

Nobody associated with the government is able to detail how the program came to catch and prosecute Winner, so instead we get interviews with whistleblowers including Thomas Drake, John Kiriakou and Edward Snowden, who know basically enough about Winner’s case to tie her experiences in with their own. It isn’t always enlightening, but Kennebeck puts enough notorious figures onscreen to generally maintain attention and to underline just how much United States vs. Reality Winner has in common with so many recent documentaries of a common ilk.

The documentary’s smoking gun, such as it is, is the audio of Reality Winner’s FBI interrogation, the key piece of evidence in her case, only made available to the filmmakers after a lengthy Freedom of Information Act request process. The audio made it to the filmmakers in February after the documentary had already been accepted by SXSW. I’m not sure if the audio is conclusive proof of FBI threats or coercion in the interview with Winner, but it’s absolutely unsettling to hear how 11 male agents, most armed, made insinuating threats and asked leading questions without an offer of an attorney or telling Winner she could leave.

The audio has a power that a basic transcript wouldn’t have. It’s also unsettling because it suggests how flimsy the film must have been in the absence of that interview, which is accompanied by the most perfunctory of blurry-faced reenactments. There’s a lot that’s perfunctory here, from the visual representation of text messages and social media posts to voiceover readings of Winner’s letters and diary by a semi-recognizable actress (Stranger Things co-star Natalia Dyer) to the stern interviews with those whistleblowing superstars.

Since United States vs. Reality Winner is a 90-minute advocacy project, I’m guessing most of the involved parties will accept the trade-off that they made their points even if one or two critics quibble about the artistic merits of how they made them.

Venue: SXSW (Documentary Feature Competition)
Director/producer: Sonia Kennebeck
Producer: Ines Hofmann Kanna
Cinematographer: Torsten Lapp
Editor: Maxine Goedicke
Composer: Insa Rudolph
94 minutes